The first time my ex-husband hit me, it was around 6 o’clock in the morning. I was three months pregnant. I hit him back and ran, locking myself in our bedroom. He kicked down the door to get at me, which is when one of our neighbors called the military police. When they came, one of the officers told me that if I pressed charges, he would have to take me in too, because what had happened was mutual assault. I was angry enough to say “fine,” only to have him call it in and his sergeant ask in an incredulous voice, “He hit her, and she hit him back? That’s self defense.” Because it was the first time, his commander ordered him to go to counseling on base. I went too, that’s how things work in the military.
There I met other women; some, like me, who had previously served, and others, dependents who had never served a day in their life. We didn’t have much in common beyond the violence in our homes and the cultural messages that insisted we owed it to ourselves and our families to try to fix what was broken. For a time it even seemed to work. He was apologetic. So was I. We were going to be parents, and our son deserved our best efforts to give him the in-tact family that neither of us had enjoyed as kids. That hopeful narrative lasted until the second time he hit me a few months later. On some level I knew that we were not going to become the happy, in-tact family that I wanted us to be, but…I hit him back that time too. As long as I fought back, it wasn’t the same as being in an abusive relationship.
I can honestly say that I tried everything to make it work, but the fighting didn’t stop after our son arrived. It never stopped. And the excuses he made, and that I made for him about military stress and new fatherhood turned into walking on eggshells because any negative expression of my emotions seemed to trigger his rage. And I was getting angrier too. There’s a cycle inside abusive relationships where you know for certain that the verbal jabs are going to become physical soon. And yes, there’s fear that kicks in as the tension builds. There’s also the perfectly normal fight response to a threat. I’m not necessarily hardwired for flight, but I’ll fight when cornered. Every time.
I don’t know how many times my ex hit me, or how many times I hit him back between 1998 and 2001. I do know that the last time he hit me, I was already reeling from a prior blow when he propped me up against the refrigerator and aimed the punch that stunned me. Then he dragged me to a couch, took my house keys and left. I already knew that we were done, we were supposed to be separating as soon as he found his own place. But something about the look on his face as he was aiming that punch woke me up to the fact that our fights had always been unfair, that at 5’6” and 120 lbs, I was not in engaged in mutual combat with this man who was over 6 feet tall and upwards of 200 lbs.
After pressing charges and changing the locks, for a brief, shining moment I thought that everything would be okay. Leaving an abusive relationship is more complicated than just walking away. While I was able to keep my apartment (because my name was the only one on the lease), and didn’t have to face trying to find space in one of the increasingly overcrowded shelters for victims of domestic violence, there was the problem of being able to afford it as a single parent. My ex had never been great about financial responsibilities, but things got much worse after our break up. I didn’t ask for, or expect, alimony. I did expect him to pay child support. But financial abuse doesn’t stop when the relationship ends. Refusing to pay child support is an easy way to manipulate a victim into having to return to an abuser. If they can’t afford to live on their own, then what options do they have? If they’re lucky they can turn to family or friends.
But if they don’t have that support system because of the isolation that is often part and parcel of being in an abusive relationship, or worse yet, if they come from a family or community that prioritizes staying together above all else, they may not be able to turn to anyone but the state for help. And that’s before we get into the additional challenges faced by victims of domestic violence that aren’t cis women. Transgender victims may not be able to access a shelter or or other legal support even if they are willing to report being victimized.
When I found that I couldn’t afford to keep my apartment, I was able to move into public housing. But recent government cuts have so negatively impacted funding for housing assistance that the facility I lived in for two years post-divorce is gone now, and rental subsidies for low income renters have been slashed again. And like many survivors of an abusive relationship, I spent much of my time after the divorce convincing my ex that I wasn’t going back to him. We had to communicate because of our son, and each interaction was fraught with the same tensions that had been so omnipresent in our relationship. I’d forgiven him so many times by that point, that it was part of the cycle. When that didn’t happen, when I waffled and wavered, but never quite folded. The real break up began. Child support was words on paper, not cash in hand. Visitation was more of a hobby on his part than actual duty. And then the trips to court started, complete with him filing at least one phony report alleging child abuse. I juggled college, court, childcare, and hoped that nothing too important would fall through the cracks. Stress made me sick, there were days I cried more than I did anything else. And my ex kept coming. Whether it was angry emails, phone messages, refusing to comply with court orders, or custodial issues I saw more of his anger in the years following our break up than I ever did during our marriage. There were no good days, there was just the waiting to see how the next bad day would play out. More restraining orders, more threatening voicemails, more fear of what might happen than I had ever thought possible.
My ex wasn’t famous or wealthy. He was (and presumably is) an average guy. He is not Ray Rice or any of a dozen other wealthy famous abusers that have made the news in recent weeks. I have no idea how he behaves in his current relationship. After all this time he might have found his way to a healthier dynamic. I hope so. All I know is that as long as we were in contact with each other, our unhealthy pattern remained a part of our interactions. But, having experienced what it takes to leave an average person, I can’t even imagine how much more difficult it would be for someone like Janay Rice to leave, and stay gone safely. Leaving is dangerous for any victim of domestic violence, as they are 70% more likely to be killed while leaving than at any other point in the relationship. Every victim’s story is different, but they all face similar barriers. I started #WhenILeft on Twitter, because the focus is so often on asking why people stay, instead of talking about the dangers of leaving, and the support that victims need in order to find their way to being survivors.